Play by Lawrence and Maggie Williams, adapted from Mr. Williams's novel, ''I, James McNeill Whistler.'' Starring John Cullum. Directed by Jerome Kilty. ''I must present the expected Whistler,'' announces the debonair, dashingly capped, slightly rouged old gentleman at the center of the Provincetown Playhouse stage.
The line would seem to be superfluous. For two very entertaining acts, the painter - in the protean performance of John Cullum - has been presenting himself in an animated restrospective of his life and times. But the line is not superfluous. It is a valedictory, a sartorial-philosophical exclamation point, a final shared confidence as the preening lion prepares to dash off to dinner with a marchioness whose name he can't quite recall.
Thanks to a bravura performance by Mr. Cullum and a quite dazzling script by Lawrence and Maggie Williams, ''Whistler'' serves the purposes of both civilized amusement and biographical tribute. It may even claim credit as adult education, whether Whistler is defining the real nature of ''Whistler's Mother,'' describing the ''Peacock Room'' painted for a British industrialist-patron, discoursing on a study of fireworks over the Thames, or doodling a caricature of Ruskin. The adaptation of Mr. Williams's novel, ''I, James McNeill Whistler,'' finds plenty of hilarity in the artist's colorful personality and defiant individualism. At the same time, it doesn't lose sight of the dedication and vision that sustained the artist. And neither does Mr. Cullum.
In what might be described as sketches assembled more in high good humor than in tranquillity, ''Whistler'' traces its subject's life and career from its quickly dismissed origins in Lowell, Mass. It touches on his Russian childhood as the son of an Army officer stationed in St. Petersburg. Later on, the young Whistler enrolled at the United States Military Academy, from which he was dismissed. As he airily remarks, ''If silicon had been a gas, I'd have been a major general today.'' Instead, the generosity of his widowed mother and the other members of his impoverished family enable Whistler to travel to Paris, where he studies to become a painter and lived la vie Boheme.
Whistler's role as an enfant terrible of the London art scene, the hostility of critics (notably Ruskin), and the long struggle for recognition are dealt with in a text that duly celebrates dazzling wordplay as well as the boldness and subtlety of his impressionistic brushwork. The libel suit against the modernistic Ruskin is marvelously suggested, with Mr. Cullum impersonating not only the witness for plaintiff and defense but the judge and jurors, too. The comicalities of the judicial proceedings contrast sharply with the tenderness of the scene in which Whistler recalls the passing of his beloved wife, Beatrix.
''Whistler'' is in all respects a tour de force for Mr. Cullum. It confirms one's admiration for an actor of exceptional range and resource. With a script and character to challenge his mettle, he is providing a wonderful evening in the theater. And with Jerome Kilty's direction maximizing the possibilities for movement and physical agility, this becomes a one-man show in which action speaks as eloquently as words.
The production has been picturesquely designed and costumed by David Gropman and beautifully lighted by William Armstrong. ''Whistler'' has fleur and flamboyance and more than a touch of the artist as Promethean vigor.